Jirga / Shura (Afghanistan)

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Jirga / Shura 🇦🇫
Afghanistan map.png
Location: Afghanistan
Definition: A gathering of elders for resolving local or national conflicts
Keywords: Afghanistan Central Asia South AsiaConflict resolution Community Elections Political party Justice Elders Pashtun
Clusters: Informal governance
Author: Madeleine O. Nosworthy
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Madeleine O. Nosworthy , School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

Jjirga is a gathering of elders for the purpose of local or national conflict resolution. Jirga is a word in Pashto, Dari and Turkish language that means ʻa gathering and consultation among a group of people.ʼ Originally from the Pashtun tribe, the practice has spread to the entire Afghan country. In areas of Afghanistan that are dominated by non-Pashtun ethnicities including Tajiks and Uzbeks, this type of gathering is named shura.

In the Pashtun tribe, jirgas are usually formal events following the rules of reciprocity of the tribal code of conduct, the Pashtunwali. Jirgas are also organised to resolve conflict at the local level, i.e. among villagers. In a jirga, the local representatives (usually the community's elders) sit in a circle, a formation that dissolves the perception of inequality. The negotiators come to a settlement for the dispute through consensus or a majority vote and the settlement is binding for all parties involved

An example of a conflict settled through a local jirga is the story of Kobra (Gang 2011: 62-63), who lost her husband in the civil war when she was pregnant. Years later, having remarried, she faced financial difficulties and decided to claim her late husband’s land for her son. Her late husband’s brother refused to recognise his nephew’s inheritance rights, saying that Kobra’s remarriage invalidated her claim. Kobra sought mediation from a jirga of elders to resolve the dispute and secured a piece of land for her son.

A Grand Jirga in Moqur, Afghanistan. Source: ResoluteSupportMedia. CC by 2.0.

Jirgas are highly ritualised. A jirga usually starts with the recital of verses of the Qur’an and ends with a prayer. It is held in a specific location and in the shape of a circle. The reconciliation also occurs according to rituals, which vary according to the type of conflict being resolved.

A jirga that takes place at the national level is called Loya Jirga. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan states that ʻthe Loya Jirga is the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistanʼ and gives it an all-important role in national governance. Loya Jirgas are held to lend representative weight to decisions such as formulating a new constitution, making agreements with foreign forces on their presence in Afghan territory, or debating the extent of the authority of a new leader. Rather than convening different members of the public for each national assembly, the members of Loya Jirga are fixed and consist of members of the National Assembly and residents of provincial and district assemblies.

A notable Loya Jirga took place in June 2002. The Bonn agreement of 2001 intended to re-install the Afghan government after the US military intervened in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. Signed by twenty-three Afghan officials and a UN representative, the Bonn agreement nominated Hamid Karzai, later long-term president of Afghanistan (2004 to 2014), as chair of the interim administration. His role was to be, amongst other things, to set up an emergency Loya jirga to ʻdecide on a Transitional Authority, including a broad-based transitional administration, to lead Afghanistan until such time as a fully representative government can be elected through free and fair electionsʼ (United Nations Peacemaker 2001: I.4). In the 2002 jirga, 1,600 delegates representing various Afghan ethnic groups confirmed Karzai’s interim nominations for cabinet posts and his own nomination as Head of the Transitional Government.

The oldest record of a jirga dates to 977, when one of the first Afghan heads of state in the Ghazni province was chosen. The tradition of the jirga practice is an important foundation of its surviving popularity. When asked about the justice delivered through jirga and shura, Afghans consistently give higher ratings to jirgas and shuras than the state courts and consider them fair and trustworthy, effective, timely and prompt (Asia Foundation 2007: 159–60, Rennie et al. 2009: 91, Ayoubi et al. 2010: 134, Rennie et al. 2011: 152, Shawe 2013: 86). The Afghanistan Human Development Report (2007:91) estimates that jirgas and shuras settle more than 80% of judicial cases in Afghanistan. In a context where the rule of law is impeded by the lack of institutional checks and balances, jirga and shura are ʻmeeting an urgent needʼ as an alternative conflict resolution mechanism (ibid.).

Jirgas have been critiqued for their violation of human rights. Women lack inclusion and representation in jirgas and settlement practices. Disputes are often settled with baad: a woman of the offender’s family is given to the victim’s family for marriage. Another criticism of jirgas and shuras is that their members can be influenced or bribed. Research into the 2002 Loya jirga which resulted in Hamid Karzai being nominated head of state suggested that there were irregularities in the methods of selection of the delegates, procedural difficulties and concealed dealings that might have influenced the outcome of the Loya jirga (Saikal 2002: 48). He adds that Zalmay Khalilzad, who was envoy to Afghanistan under the US President George W. Bush, allegedly cajoled the former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shaw to entice him to withdraw his candidacy, securing an easier win for Karzai. Despite the potential foreign influence, Saikal considers this Loya jirga to have been a first step towards a democratic process nonetheless, as it was the first time a Loya jirga provided indirect popular legitimacy to a leader.

Warlords or armed local leaders can also influence a jirga/shura through positioning loyalists within them. A report by Rashid found Afghan warlords ʻenlisting more and more men in order to increase their power base before the convening of the Loya jirgaʼ, with some military leaders commanding ʻmore than 15,000 troopsʼ (2002). ʻArmed political groups, commanders, and warlords have strategically targeted traditional customary justice systems (jirga and shura) throughout rural Afghanistan in their attempt to control local populationsʼ (Wardak 2006: 97).

Programmes of hybrid conflict resolution explore the possibility of joining traditional norms with the development of human rights. A research project on conflict resolution in a part of Kabul named Afshar examined ʻthe value and possible mechanisms for linking state and non-state justice systemsʼ (Gang 2011: 1) and set up a hybrid conflict resolution programme using principles of Shari’a law, rights from state law and local traditions as well as creating space for women’s participation (ibid.). A ʻhybrid model for the justice system in Afghanistanʼ proposed in 2007 by Wardak and colleagues (2007: 129) allowed for a thorough system of checks and balances between traditional conflict resolution methods and state justice, and was later expanded to account for women’s participation with a female-dominated human rights unit (Braithwaite and Wardak 2013: 203). Braithwaite and Wardak noted a positive policy shift that saw jirgas and shuras as ʻsometimes abusing rights, but also […] as reformableʼ and reported that ʻbaad as jirga outcome [has] become increasingly rareʼ (2013: 204). They gave examples of shuras which have ended traditions of forced marriages, or ruled that beating of wives was no longer allowed (ibid.). These examples suggest that a dual or hybrid approach to lawmaking in Afghanistan might be a way forward to bring durable change.


Asia Foundation. 2007. Afghanistan in 2007: A Survey of the Afghan People. Kabul: The Asia Foundation

Ayoubi N., Haqbeen F. R. and Tariq M. O. 2010. Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People. Kabul: The Asia Foundation

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Braithwaite, J. and Wardak, A. 2013. Crime and War in Afghanistan Part II: A Jeffersonian Alternative?, British Journal Of Criminology, 53(2): 197-214

Gang, R. 2011. Community-Based Dispute Resolution Services in Kabul City. Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, https://areu.org.af/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/1107E-CBDR-Processes-in-Kabul-City-CS-2011-web.pdf

Rashid, A. 2002. ‘Signs of Internal Chaos Dog Afghanistan's Government --- Fighting Among Warlords Escalates as Preparations Begin for Loya jirga,’ Wall Street Journal, 22 Feb: A.12

Rennie, R., Sen P. and Sharma, S. 2009. Afghanistan in 2009: A Survey of the Afghan People. Kabul: The Asia Foundation

Saikal, A. 2002. ‘Afghanistan after the Loya jirga,’ Survival, 44(3):47-56

Shawe, K. 2013. Afghanistan in 2013: A Survey of the Afghan People. Kabul: The Asia Foundation

United Nations Peacemaker. 2001. Agreement on provisional arrangements in Afghanistan pending the re-establishment of permanent government institutions, https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/AF_011205_AgreementProvisionalArrangementsinAfghanistan%28en%29.pdf

Wardak, A. 2006. ‘Structures of Authority and Local Dispute Settlement in Afghanistan’, in Albrecht, H. et al. (eds.), Conflicts and Conflict Resolution in Middle Eastern Societies: Between Tradition and Modernity. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot

Wardak, A., Saba, D., Kazem, H. and United Nations Development Programme. 2007. Afghanistan human development report 2007, Bridging modernity and tradition: Rule of law and the search for justice. Kabul: Kabul University